The number of Hoosiers with COVID-19 continues to climb, but testing across Indiana appears to have slowed in recent days, even as state officials say they are ramping up test supplies and sites around the state.
That raises questions about whether the state is doing enough to warn people who might be infected and to track the spread of the disease.
Figures posted daily by the Indiana State Department of Health show that 1,002 people were tested for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, a sharp decline from 1,715 on Monday and 1,828 on Sunday. Last Thursday, the number of people tested was an all-time high of 2,285.
State leaders on Wednesday, however, continued to defend “targeted testing”—or restricting tests to certain high-risk groups—saying they didn’t want to deplete test supplies.
Gov. Eric Holcomb said that people who don’t have any symptoms, which he called the “worried well,” should not be getting tested, leaving the swabs and testing chemicals available for those who have high fevers, respiratory issues and other serious health issues.
Holcomb said the tests are also available for people who have frequent contact with the public, such as health care workers, first responders and essential workers, such as those in grocery stores, pharmacies and banks, who are considered front-line workers.
“We can do the front line,” Holcomb said. “We can do the most vulnerable, and do it in a very responsible way that doesn’t deplete all of our resources all at once.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box on Wednesday said she agreed that the testing numbers that are reported have peaks and valleys, but she attributed some of that to numbers from outside labs, such as Quest and LabCorp, that get reported irregularly. She said the state doesn’t have control over how or when those figures get reported.
“I’m confident that the testing is increasing,” she said, “and I just think there are numbers that wax and wane.”
The health department website said the number of tests is “provisional,” or subject to change, and reflects only those reported to the state. “Numbers should not be characterized as a comprehensive total,” the website said.
On Wednesday, Eli Lilly and Co. expanded its drive-thru testing for COVID-19 to workers in grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses deemed essential by the state of Indiana who have regular, front-line contact with the public, and to people in the community showing symptoms who are vulnerable to severe complications of the virus, including seniors with poor health.
That means that tens of thousands of additional people, potentially, who might not have been eligible to get tested elsewhere, could now be tested. Previously, Lilly had restricted its testing to health care workers and first responders.
As of Wednesday morning, Lilly had tested nearly 6,000 individuals. About half of the tests came from patients who were sampled at hospitals. The other half were patients tested at Lilly’s drive-thru facility at its downtown headquarters. Lilly said about 10% to 15% of first responders and health care workers it is testing are testing positive for COVID-19.
People who want to be tested at Lilly’s drive-thru facility need to have a doctor’s note and an appointment, meaning the general public still cannot get tested there or at most other locations around the state, such as hospitals. The tests are free.
“We’re trying to make the biggest impact we can on public health,” Lilly CEO Dave Ricks said Wednesday, defending the guidelines on who can get tested.
Lilly had its most productive day of testing on Tuesday, with 436 tests conducted on drive-thru individuals, and 458 tests done for other Indiana institutions sending swabs to the drugmaker’s lab.
And this week, a private physician, Dr. Dorian Kenleigh, began offering nasal swab testing downtown to the public at $100 apiece. He told several news outlets he was working with a national lab that provides the test kits and processing.
Some health and biostatics experts, however, say such limited or scattershot testing means that it is unclear just how many Hoosiers have been infected, and that clouds the picture for who has the virus and how it is spreading.
“It’s likely to be in the tens of thousands,” said George Owen Mohler, professor of computer and information science at IUPUI, who has done modeling on coronavirus statistics.
“In terms of what to expect, this really depends on how much impact school closings, working from home, and shelter in place have in reducing the reproduction number of the virus,” he said.
The Indiana State Department of Health said Wednesday that the number of presumptive positive cases for COVID-19 in the state has risen to 2,565 after the emergence of 406 more cases
The state has reported 1,051 new cases over the past three days. The death toll in the state has risen to 65, up from 49 the previous day.
State health officials released new guidelines Wednesday, easing some restrictions on who can get testing. Now eligible for tests are pregnant women and people showing symptoms of COVID-19 (sore throat, fever, trouble breathing) who may not need to be hospitalized but are at high risk because of diabetes, high blood pressure, compromised immune systems or other serious health issues.
Box said those people will still need to be referred by a doctor to get tested.
“We want our providers to be the ones working with patients to decide who needs to be tested,” she said. “This will allow us to test more of our high-risk individuals across the state of Indiana, insuring that while we have these finite supplies, we are testing our most appropriate population.”
She added that the state is distributing an additional 3,000 tests kits made up by Lilly labs. The kits will go to nine different hospital systems that have indicated they are critically low to be able to do the testing that is needed, she said.
Indiana will also be receiving 15 machines made by Abbott Laboratories that can analyze coronavirus tests in just minutes, rather than hours or overnight. She wasn’t sure when those would be available.
In addition, Indiana also received additional hospital supplies from our strategic national stockpile.